What I'm Reading: Autumn 2019

Creativity and time are funny things for me. Whenever I have plenty of one, more often than not I lack the other one. Or maybe it’s just my self-diagnosed burnout and chronic procrastination that’s holding me back. Who knows. 

Anyways, why am I talking about time and creativity? Well, because in a very disjointed way, that’s been what interlinks my Autumn reads, preparing me for a more academic winter. I saw the leaves start turning with an October-appropriate, chill-you-to-the-core thriller; wrapped up with one of the most heart wrenching stories I’ve ever read and settled into the December dark nights with two tales of travelling against time that have inspired me to be more curious.

On to the book reviews.

The doll factory (2019)

Elizabeth Macneal

I had no idea what to expect of The Doll Factory, and yet it delivered a truly memorable work of fiction. The characters are all beautifully developed. Our heroine Iris is a doll artist, determined to become a real painter, who lives with her shy and resentful twin sister Rose. That is until careless and narcissistic Louis convinces her to leave her life behind – all thanks to Silas, a rather strange taxidermist. 

This is a tale of passion and love, but also of the dark obsessions humans are capable of. The author brings the reader right into Victorian London without making the characters seem distant. She touches several topics (spoilers with details ahead!) that are usually exhausted in literature with a new angle. Without a doubt, Macneal’s writing is a breath of fresh air and will have you cheering – out loud – for the heroine.

SPOILER

The troubled past trope is exhausted in the world of villains, and yet Macneal manages to get INSIDE his head. Once Silas kidnaps Iris, the story is both terrifying and realistic. His doubts about keeping Iris in captivity as he slowly grows tired of her are truly chilling. What won me over was her resilience and her strength and not her status of victimhood. 

This is probably the only book I’ve read where violence against a woman does not include rape and/or sexual assault. In light of the ubiquitous violated woman narrative in today’s society, this novel has won my heart and should be an inspiration to any horror and thriller novelists.

END OF SPOILER

Just read it.

10 minutes 38 seconds in this strange world (2019)

Elif Shafak

Oh. My. God. YES! THIS IS IT! THIS IS THE BOOK WE WERE WAITING FOR! 

I can’t understand how or why I’d never heard of this incredible human being until now. What a writer. Please, give me a moment while I catch my breath.

10 minutes 38 seconds in this strange world follows Tequila Leila as her brain slowly drifts into unconsciousness after she dies. In the next ten minutes, we get to learn how Leila found herself in this situation – from her childhood in rural Turkey to her career as a sex worker in Istanbul, an unlikely love story and friends that feel like family. When your time with Leila is up, your heart will have shattered to pieces a million times over.

The second part of the book follows her friends as they try to cope with the loss of their ring-leader. Here is when the characters we’ve come to know and love in the first part come to life and become fully-bodied humans. The characters in this novel are diverse, relevant, and most important in a book, multi-layered. While the story starts with a tragedy, it soon becomes obvious that the main takeaway is not sadness or shame. It’s something altogether more healing.

Must read. This is the type of book that my English A2 teacher in high school (any IB alumni out there?) would have gleefully made us read, and one I hope students of the future see in their curriculums.

Driving Tito: Through the Balkan Backroads with a Celebrity (2019)

Emma Carmichael

I’m absolutely biased as Emma’s little bookshop Travelling Through was one of my favourite spots in London. Sadly for all of us, the shop closed this summer just as Emma published her book. It took me a while to finally purchase my Kindle edition, but once I did I could not turn it off.

I needed to read a book like this so much. Emma’s tale is one of genuine curiosity and adventure as she clunkily makes a circuit around the Balkans in an old Zastava car, in just under three months. Her way of travelling carries an innocence that opens her mind as not many people can.

This book is so much more than her antics. It’s an observation of life in Balkan countries not that long after a time of conflict – not a commentary, more like a wordy photograph. If you’re afraid of travelling alone, Emma will put your fears at ease; and if you were wondering whether you should pack your bags again, she’ll give you that nudge you needed. 

The Travelling Cat Chronicles (2017)

Hiro Arikawa, Philip Gabriel (translator)

As most of my books, The Travelling Cat Chronicles was an impulse buy. This one was rushedly purchased alongside Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine in Kuala Lumpur’s airport on my way back to London from Sulawesi. 

It’s the sort of book you can read quickly, that is if you’ve got the headspace for it. The Travelling Cat Chronicles follows Nana the cat and his owner Satoru on a long road trip to catch up with old school friends and find Nana a new family. Nana can’t understand why he can’t stay with Satoru and does everything in his claws (heh heh) to change his mind.

I guessed the big mystery early in the second chapter (let me know when you did!), but that didn’t spoil the story for me. As it’s told from Nana’s perspective, the tale is funny at times and warm at others. The cat’s relentless efforts to be fierce is desperately kawaii and Satoru’s dedication to his friend just heartbreaking.

Arikawa’s writing, translated into English by Philip Gabriel, is light, fresh and musical. I’m not familiar at all with Japanese customs, expressions nor humour, so I believe I missed out on many of the jokes and cultural context. Her descriptions of the landscapes and masterful helming of the narrative far make up for any cultural barriers. I may or may not have added “Japanese road trip” to my travel bucket list.

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